My husband Michael and I were having quite an impressive day – or so we thought. What seemed like an otherwise ordinary Tuesday began with me hopping on the train to Manhattan to appear as a guest on Fox Business News to discuss how to deal with professional setbacks. Later that afternoon, Michael was interviewed on Huffington Post Live to share a father’s perspective on Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In.” For two non-professional media people, we felt that we were taking the airwaves by storm.
When we told our 12 year old twins about our activities of the day, our son Jacob said, “Yeah. Cool,” in exactly the same tone of voice he uses when I tell him that I packed him a tuna sandwich for lunch. Really? That’s all we get? So I asked, “What do we need to do to impress you?” to which Sophie responded, “Get on ESPN.”
Well, the best chance I have of getting on ESPN is if I happen to get hit in the face by a fly ball at Yankee Stadium, and that clip then gets aired on TV. If that was the impressive standard, neither my husband nor I were ever going to meet it. That wasn’t the first we had fallen short in impressing our kids – and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last.
Over the last year, I have come to realize that I care more than I wish I did about impressing people. It’s also an occupational hazard. As a professional speaker and coach, it is a part of my job, in fact, to leave a positive, memorable impression so that people actually take the key concepts I’ve shared and do something with them. But far too often, I feel myself internally channeling that infamous Sally Field Oscars acceptance speech – “You like me! You really like me!” – when I want to be the kind of person who believes that other people liking me is irrelevant to me liking me.
It’s a tough mental shift, caring less about impressing other people and caring more about impressing ourselves. What makes it so hard? Partly it’s because we can’t go cold turkey. It’s impractical to decide that we really, truly don’t care what anybody thinks about us, ever. That’s a great mindset to have if you don’t care about keeping your job, your marriage, your friendships or simply being a welcome member of society. (I often ride the subway with people who seem not to care what anyone else thinks when it comes to personal hygiene and it, well, stinks.)
It’s also challenging because most of us have been and continue to be extrinsically rewarded for impressing other people. When we impress the interviewer, we get the job. When we impress the boss, we get promoted. When our kids impress the teacher, they get the A. When we impress a philanthropist, we get more money to support the causes we care about. I realize that I must have impressed Michael at some point for him to decide he wanted to marry me. (Luckily, he impressed me, too.)
And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s the way of our world. We should care about how other people feel. It’s when caring about impressing others becomes critical to what we decide, how we behave, what values we uphold and how we feel about ourselves that it becomes a hindrance rather than a help.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned over the past year that has helped me focus on impressing myself rather than others won’t get me on ESPN, but it is athletic. Last winter, I joined CrossFit “The Rock” – a local gym that is part of a larger movement to get people fit by combining high-intensity power-based activities such as Olympic weightlifting, gymnastic movements and explosive aerobic intervals. Like all of the other participants, I keep a private log of my own daily activities, but everyone’s score for the day’s “WOD” (Workout of the Day) is written publically on a whiteboard at the front of the class. It lists how much weight I lifted, how many reps of an exercise I accomplished, and how much time a WOD took me. It also lists where I may have had to make adjustments based on my physical capabilities, like doing push-ups on my knees or pull-ups with an elastic band looped around the bar to support me.
While my achievements are listed every single day, they are listed beside the achievements of my classmates, many of whom are police officers, fire fighters, military personnel, and former professional athletes. (I think I am the only motivational speaker in the bunch.) It became very clear very quickly that there was absolutely nobody who was going to be impressed by my time, my score or my abilities.
Nobody except me. I was the only one who was going to be impressed that I got up every day to put myself through hell. I was the only one who was going to be impressed that I had calluses on my hands, scabs on my knees and pains in muscles I didn’t even know I had. This was 100% just for me.
Now, as it turned out, other folks who’ve never known me to have either an inner or an outer athlete were impressed. That’s nice. But it has absolutely nothing to with why I do it, and continue to do it. And I must admit, I’m pretty impressed with myself for not caring.
Golda Meir said: “Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life.” Not the kind of self that others will envy. Not the kind of self that will make you the talk of the town. Not the kind of self that needs other people’s opinions to drive your own. The kind of self that is naturally, honestly and consistently impressive – to you.